New Jersey’s Disappeared Immigrants: TheExperiment interviews Jeannette Gabriel

“There was a series of detentions that took place starting after 2001 and continuing up until the present. Where the government is basically rounding people up on no charges and holding them as detainees for extended periods of time. Some of people have been in jail for two years now. The government started by saying that there was no reason why these people were being picked up at all and many people were quickly deported to countries they had come from. Since immigration is a civil matter and not a criminal matter, the government had no responsibility to provide attorneys for the detainees and it was very difficult for most of the detainees to get legal representation. The government refuses to release any information about the detainees, including the names of who’s being held or how many detainees there are. Broad estimates are that there’ve been over 5,000.”

2003.10.14

theExperiment: Jeannette Gabriel, Can you describe the circumstances of the mass arrests of immigrants that took place in the New York and New Jersey areas following September 11 of 2001?

Jeannette Gabriel: Well, there was a series of detentions that took place starting after 2001 and continuing up until the present. Where the government is basically rounding people up on no charges and holding them as detainees for extended periods of time. Some of people have been in jail for two years now. The rationale of the government has changed. The government started by saying that there was no reason why these people were being picked up at all and many people were quickly deported to countries they had come from. Since immigration is a civil matter and not a criminal matter, the government had no responsibility to provide attorneys for the detainees and it was very difficult for most of the detainees to get legal representation, so people were just very quickly deported. Then the government shifted their strategy over the last nine months to focusing on people who have previous criminal convictions and saying that, based on the 1996 anti-terrorism legislation passed under Clinton, that anyone who has a previous conviction can be deported from the United States. So again, all the detainees who have previous criminal convictions cannot get attorneys because attorneys don’t want to represent them, so you have an ongoing case of people being denied access to the legal system.

tE: Can you tell us exactly how many detainees we’re talking about?

JG: No, I cannot because the government has not released those numbers and refuses to release any information about the detainees, including the names of who’s being held or how many detainees there are. Broad estimates are that there’ve been over 5,000. But that’s just estimates based on activists in the field.

tE: How many have been released and how long did it take for these releases to come about?

JG: I know of very few releases, very much just isolated incidents where we’ve been able to win releases. I could probably count the number of releases that I know about on my hand. It’s not been common at all. The response is to deport people. So even in cases where it’s tremendously clear—I mean in all these cases people have not been charged with any crime, they have not been connected to terrorism in any way but that doesn’t mean the government is just going to let people go.

tE: Have there been any terrorism-related charges that have been successfully prosecuted against the detainees since their arrests?

JG: No. The definition of a detainee is someone that there are no charges against. So there are no charges, no criminal charges, no terrorism charges against any of the detainees. These are people that the government has admitted have absolutely no ties to terrorism, but they are being held nonetheless as criminals.

tE: And they are lacking in any basic rights to prevent this kind of abuse because they are, for the most part, not citizens. Is that correct?

JG: Right. All the detainees are not citizens. They are people who in many cases have green cards of permanent residency but do not have citizenship. The government is actually holding a few citizens but they are being held on terrorism charges. And even though there are very serious questions about the way they are being held, and the conditions under which they are being held, those are very different from the detainees who have no charges against them. So all of the detainees are immigrants who do not have citizenship status, which makes them a very vulnerable population.

[CORRECTION: Two of the detainees are actually US citizens—Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi—who are being held under the legally dubious title of “enemy combatants.” As such, the government claims that no criminal charges are necessary to justify their detention. See the Human Rights Watch press release, U.S. Circumvents Courts With Enemy Combatant Tag: http://www.hrw.org/press/2002/06/us0612.htm.]

tE: Can you talk about some of the efforts that have taken place on the part of activists and legal organizations like the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee, and how these efforts have affected the situation of the detainees there?

JG: I think that there’ve been lots of different types of activism on behalf of the detainees. The detainees themselves have been protesting their conditions. One of the ways that we’ve strongly supported the detainees is by supporting their hunger strikes because when they’re in jail, really isolated, and don’t have any other way to reach out and fight back the common response has been to engage in hunger strikes. We’ve been supporting hunger strikes and protests in the jails. In New Jersey there’s been a series of protests inside the jails. See, what’s been done is that there’s really not room to hold the detainees, so the INS has rented space from county jails throughout New Jersey and is holding the detainees in these county jails and paying the county governments to house the detainees. So that’s where these protest have been taking place, is in these county jails. And we’ve been supporting the activists when they protest, by protesting on the outside and publicizing the protests on the inside.

In addition we held, in March of this year, an action called the March Against Fear in Patterson, to publicize the atmosphere of fear that’s been generated. The whole point of these detentions is to generate a chilling affect against immigrant communities and terrorize people against standing up and fighting back, and it’s been extremely effective. People just feel absolutely terrorized because right after 9/11 everybody was just picked up randomly. There were stories of people stopping and asking the police for directions and being detained and deported. So it’s just absolutely random. It’s this whole idea that anybody can be retaliated against by the government, which creates an atmosphere of absolute fear. So one of the things that we’ve done—the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee—is to set up an emergency response system, which is a 24 hour phone hotline. And if people call us—if the INS[Immigration and Naturalization Service], the FBI, or the Police come to their door and are interrogating them and they think they may be taken into detention—they call us and within 15 minutes we have a team of witnesses to their door. The idea of this system is to be actively defending our civil rights in the street, and by putting ourselves out there as witnesses we are putting ourselves as a wedge, between the immigrant communities that are directly under attack and the authorities. So these are some of the types of things that have been done.

tE: What can our readers do, who are outside of these communities? How can they participate in helping these individuals who are already detained, or these efforts of your organization?

JG: I think the most important thing is for people to realize that these attacks against civil rights are not just about immigrant communities, they are about all of us. One of the other really large groups that has been under attack has been political activists. I just heard a story, and we’re working on a case now, of an activist with the Workplace Project, which is an immigrant workers rights group in Hempstead, NY, organizing day laborers and against gangs. One of their organizers was picked up and is being held as a detainee in New Jersey. So it’s a great way to retaliate against political activists, all these laws that are now in place: the PATRIOT Act and the 1996 anti-terrorism legislation. And when people realize that, then this becomes not just about helping other communities under attack but also about defending our own civil rights. So things that people can do are set up teach-ins in their communities, get involved in ongoing groups like ours. People can go to our website, there’s a whole list of things that people can do on our website which is http://www.nj-civilrights.org and there are a series of petition drives and that sort of thing. We’re a more activist based organization, getting out into the streets. Our strategy has been to pressure community government to be accountable for its participation in the Ashcroft plan.

tE: Jeannette Gabriel, thank you for all of your efforts, and for taking the time to answer these questions.

JG: Sure, nice talking to you.


Jeannette Gabriel is an activist with the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee, which is a community-based organization committed to ending the US Government’s illegal detention without charge of immigrants, American citizens and all others.

Author: Gabriel Voiles

News Service: TheExperiment

URL: http://www.theexperiment.org/articles.php?news_id=1984